MAN WITHOUT FEAR
‘Daredevil’ Season 2 Makes the Punisher and Elektra Look Like the Real Heroes of Hell’s Kitchen
A sadistic vigilante and a deadly old flame add much-needed flair to the saga of Marvel’s Man Without Fear. Too bad Foggy and Karen are still around.
In its second season, Daredevil does something no other Marvel property has, to this point, done—it turns on its hero. At least during the first seven episodes of this return engagement from the Netflix-exclusive series, Daredevil (Charlie Cox), aka blind Hell’s Kitchen lawyer Matt Murdock, takes a moral stand against sadistic vigilantism that, in light of his own nocturnal crime-fighting activities, treads so closely into hypocritical territory that the show doesn’t seem to buy what its protagonist is selling. Situating its story on the fine line separating noble activism from self-righteous homicide, it has Daredevil repeatedly profess his Catholic belief that only God has the right to take a life—and his concurrent law school-based view that, in His absence, juries should decide men’s ultimate fate. And then, it undercuts his convictions, time and again, by presenting outside-the-law lethality as a reasonable means for doing what the criminal justice system can’t, or won’t.
In that respect, then, Daredevil’s second season is, like its protagonist, at war with itself. It struggles to cast Daredevil’s refusal to kill his enemies as virtuous, even as it recognizes that, given their unrepentant villainy, perhaps they deserve no better than to be offed in the dead of night. Daredevil himself wrestles with such issues courtesy of the appearance of The Punisher (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal), aka Frank Castle, a war vet who arrives in NYC with intent to slaughter. Employing precise military tactics—and an armory of high-tech weaponry—the Punisher makes his introduction by gunning down an Irish underworld outfit and a biker gang. Those massacres, in turn, attract the attention of Daredevil, who’s soon trading blows with the gruff, grim judge-jury-and-executioner on dark rooftops and in dank alleyways—as well as listening to the Punisher opine that they’re not so different, except for the fact that the Punisher’s bullet-to-the-head methods don’t allow paroled criminals to return to the streets to commit more crimes.
Now led by Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who take over for Season One’s showrunner Steven S. DeKnight and creator Drew Goddard, Daredevil grounds itself in familiar questions about the righteousness of vigilantism, and whether there’s really much separating Daredevil’s code—in which beating crooks to a pulp is OK, but ending their lives is not—from the Death Wish ethos of The Punisher. Compounding matters, this new season not only pits Daredevil against this darker doppelganger, but it also pairs him with Elektra Natchios (Gods of Egypt’s Elodie Yung), a wealthy college girlfriend who years earlier failed to convince Murdock to assassinate his father’s killer, and who now embroils him in an espionage mission involving the Yakuza that further stokes the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’s bloodlust-y urges.
Sandwiched between an adversary who thinks killing in the name of justice (and vengeance) is justified, and a former flame who turns violence into an eroticized game, Daredevil’s desire to stay above the murderous fray comes across as so much insincere nonsense. Given Daredevil’s own ferocity, as well as the fact that both The Punisher and Elektra’s victims are inarguable cretins, Daredevil so stacks the deck against its central character that it’s difficult to buy his protestations against The Punisher and Elektra’s extra-legal endeavors. By the series’ midway point, it even has one of Daredevil’s most trusted confidants coming around to the notion that, while The Punisher has clearly broken the law, he’s done so for a worthy cause, and solely to rid the city of its absolutely worst inhabitants.
With Netflix having only provided press with the season’s first seven episodes, it’s impossible to conclude how Daredevil will eventually resolve its fundamental conflicts. Yet on the basis of its opening chapters, it’s clear that the show’s interest in questioning its hero’s more merciless motives and impulses has considerably intensified. That’s mostly due to The Punisher, a grim angel of death whom Bernthal embodies with a chilling brand of dead-eyed severity. Still reeling from the untimely demise of his family, and committed to the idea that NYC’s criminals deserve to be filled with ungodly amounts of lead, Bernthal’s vigilante is the terrifying no-handwringing counterpoint to the Catholic guilt-wracked Daredevil, and their face-offs lend the show both a visceral and ethical punch that was lacking from the first season.
Though their Yakuza-espionage subplot is rather routine (at least, so far), Elektra’s participation is also a boon to Daredevil’s action, providing the first sparks of sensuality to a program that’s often so drenched in (literal and figurative) darkness that it becomes oppressively dreary. Yung’s deadly temptress has a playful nastiness that frequently cuts through the overarching bleakness, and like The Punisher, her ruthless self-interest serves to further destabilize Daredevil’s conception of himself as an upright do-gooder. Refusing to merely rubber-stamp Daredevil’s worldview, the show instead chips away at it from various angles, in the process revealing the uglier, more fascistic underpinnings of so many Marvel (and DC) sagas—and, also, exposing those elements as the very things that make such superhero fantasies like this so enticing.
Those weightier concerns enliven Daredevil’s second go-round, and also help to overshadow its continuing problems—namely, Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll as, respectively, Murdock’s law firm compatriots Frankie “Foggy” Nelson and Karen Page. Though now given fewer punchlines to royally screw up, Foggy remains a borderline-intolerable comedic-relief sidekick, a doofy jokester who, when not being unfunny, also likes to scold his red-suited-by-night friend for his various failings. He’s a recurring drain on the proceedings, as is Woll’s Page, a sleuthing secretary who has two expressions—googly-eyed smiling, and on-the-verge-of-tears anxiety—and whose budding relationship with Murdock seems like an unnecessary, tacked-on plot device.
As before, too many episodes are padded with superfluous legal wrangling, small-business dilemmas, and courtroom drama that, no matter how integral they are to Daredevil’s character, wind up halting momentum. Nonetheless, a hallways-and-staircase battle at the conclusion of the third episode re-establishes the series’ flair for extended, exhausting combat. And energized by The Punisher and Elektra—two supporting players who do far more to complicate Daredevil’s enterprises and ethos than the grating Foggy and Karen—Daredevil seems to have found its niche as not only Marvel’s most brutal offering, but also its most introspective as well. In terms of self-critically investigating its hero’s, and genre’s, inherent contradictions, it’s a show without fear.